I was asked these questions about meeting and greeting by a journalist recently, so I thought I’d share my responses here.
Why do people often mis-judge a greeting (going for a handshake when the other person goes in to kiss)?
We mis-judge because we make assumptions about the other persons culture, upbringing or intentions. At other times we get it wrong because our perception or information is skewed, for example, Martha invited us and she always does at least three air kisses, so we assume all her friends operate in the same way. They might, they might not.
We also draw pretty instant conclusions based on someone’s appearance. They may look as if they have a casual approach , or dress in a very reserved manner, and we make assumptions, either based on what we see before us, or on our previous experiences. We do need to make assumptions though, because life is to short to carry out a full analysis before every hello.
The bottom line is that it is ok to make mistakes in this area. We all do it on a very regular basis – it is no big deal, and really not worth losing sleep over.
How can you read body language and prevent this?
If you have the opportunity, look for the subtle changes that occur in their body language as the other person (I call them Topi – ‘The Other Person Involved’) realises they are going to be introduced to you.
Think of a continuum from relaxed, open and expressive (ROE) through to formal , reserved and unexpressive. (FRU) Practice noticing where the person is on the scale, and which way they move up or down it when you enter the scene. The difference is likely to be almost imperceptible, but is there if you are looking for it.
This is a crude analysis, but it gives you a ballpark:
ROE – Stays the same – go for an informal cheek or air kiss. Maybe even two.
ROE > FRU They are a little more wary of new people. You might notice they stand straighter, move less, or step to put a little more space between you. The smile may look less authentic, eyebrows may lower after an initial flash ( the initial flash is just recognition or acknowledgement). Give a warm smile, extend a hand that is angles slightly downwards, so that it doesn’t look like a too formal handshake, and can easily be converted to a ‘lean in’ air or cheek kiss.
FRU>FRU The chances are this person values their personal space. Offer a hand, and don’t lean in. Unless its man to man, avoid very firm handshakes. Social situations call for less grip – but more than a wet fish!
FRU>ROE This person is pleased to meet you. Their smile is genuine, their eyebrows settle higher after the initial flash, their stance relaxes, they lean forward. If you see a marked change, they could well find you attractive, or have another reason for wanting to meet you – maybe your reputation has gone ahead of you. Here, there needs to be a quick judgement call. Do you want to encourage them or slow the pace? An air/cheek may be appropriate, or if the change in them is less, they may be more comfortable with a handshake.
Some people just hate our current ‘kissy’ culture; their reluctance to kiss or hug you says nothing about you, and a lot about them. If someone appears stand offish, allow them their space and follow their lead.
If in doubt, always err on the side of caution. It’s much easier to build a rapport from a lukewarm beginning than to extricate yourself from coming on too hot too soon. Also don’t forget that this is not all about the other person. You are responsible for respecting yourself, and protecting our personal space whenever we want to.
Are there gender differences to consider?
Women kiss women more than men kiss men! Men should be aware that women don’t want their knuckles crushed, and may need to ease up if they are used to shaking hands in a male dominated environment. There is no denying that men are physically more powerful than women, and they need to be aware of the impact of this. I’m 5’2”. I doubt I could intimidate a guy by holding his had too long or leaning too close, but a 6’ guy could certainly daunt me.
Irrespective of gender, where attraction is present, the dynamics change. When attraction is one sided, there is increased potential for embarrassment or discomfort. That doesn’t mean you’ve got it wrong – it’s normal to feel uncomfortable if someone enters your personal space and you don’t want them there. If you spot it coming, extend a handshake quickly and step back on one foot to increase the space between you. If they persist in coming in for a kiss, it is ok to turn your head a little more than usual, so that they meet air not cheek.
Are their cultural differences to consider?
Unless you are totally immersed in another culture (e.g. you have been working abroad for several months in an environment that is exclusively one other nationality, it is normal nowadays for the other person to respect your culture. You are unlikely to understand the intricacies of Japanese bowing and will only feel uncomfortable trying to get it right. When in doubt, offer a hand and a warm smile – a smile is understood everywhere. Bear in mind that in some cultures extended eye contact is taboo, so don’t take it personally if someone breaks their gaze.
What can you do to rectify a weird/ awkward greeting?
Smile, only mention it if the other person is deeply embarrassed (“that was awkward, wasn’t it!”) and put them – and yourself at ease as quickly as possible by moving the conversation on. Always have an innocuous conversation starter that is easy to answer up your sleeve. (How long have you been in this business? Are you enjoying Oxford?) .
We will want to develop the conversation with some people we meet, in which case showing a genuine interest in their responses and adding your own shared experience will quickly build rapport. Be aware, though, that at other times we just want to be polite and move on, so don’t use an opening question that makes an exit strategy difficult! For example, if you ask what they like about their job , they could talk for ages. Save questions that will lead to better conversations until you have decided you want to talk further. One way of signalling non verbally that you want the conversation to end is to nod three times. (try it!)
By Julie Cooper
Author of Face to Face in the Workplace
“If you deal with people you need this book” Buy your copy here